Depo­la­ri­sing Social Media. What should the Oppo­si­tion consi­der when deve­lo­ping social media stra­te­gies?


Part 3 of the Blogseries about the elections in Turkey in May 2023. Find part 1, part 2 and part 4 here.

In the last post of this blog series, we discussed the social media strategy of the ruling AKP and its Presidential candidate Erdoğan, drawing on interviews with experts in media, communications and politics. In this third post, we will discuss the general challenges and opportunities that the opposition parties should consider when developing their social media strategies. In the next post, we will be discussing their social media campaigns in detail. During our interviews, the political parties had not started their election campaigns actively, and Nation Alliance, the strongest oppositional alliance against Erdoğan, had not announced their presidential candidate.

Nation Alliance was united with the agenda of building a parliamentary system and democratization against Erdoğan’s centralized presidential system. After long negotiations and a crisis with the IYI Party, the six-party alliance declared the chairman of the main opposition, the Republican People Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as the joint candidate on March 6, which is just over two months until the elections. The late announcement of the joint candidate received strong criticism from some circles of society and analysts pointed out that this delay may boost Erdoğan’s votes.

The political culture of Turkey has been transformed by increasing polarised politics driven by populism’s binary view of politics. The government achieved to take direct or indirect control of conventional media outlets, particularly mainstream media by 2018. One last holdeout was Dogan Media, which was purchased by the pro-government Demiroren Group. Why do the mainstream media matter so much? The experts point to the fact that the lack of mainstream representation in media led to a decline in trust in news and contributed to severe polarisation.

Due to the highly controlled conventional media environment, social media is of the utmost importance for critical voices and opposition parties to access non-partisan news and information, initiate public debates, form public opinion, and reach target audiences. By 2022, 83% percent of the urban audience used digital media, including social media as a news source in Turkey, which seems to replace television as the major news source. Thus, larger audiences, particularly those who do not support the government, consider social media as a large platform where they can find alternative news, different opinions and perspectives. However, can social media be effective enough to change opinions and voters’ decisions?

Two respondents state that social media had no effect on previous elections and will be totally ineffective in the upcoming elections as well. The other two respondents claim that social media will have a decisive impact on the outcome. Despite agreeing that social media opened up a space for the opposition, the general consensus among the respondents is that social media plays a distinct but complementary role during the election period. Although all the respondents agree that social media presents more opportunities for the opposition rather than the ruling government, their opinion on its impact on the elections is mixed. It is necessary to recognise the main challenges and offer a more critical assessment.

Breaking out of Echo Chambers & Fighting Polarisation

The general concern among the experts is the polarisation among the voters, driven by both the populist political culture and the algorithms of social media platforms based on recommendations. The most important challenge for the opposition is not falling into the trap of believing in their own echo chambers as if they represent the majority. This delusion of representation and the increasing dependency of politicians on social media for gaining popularity results in intra-party factions as well as a widening gap between different camps, which prevents them from gaining floating votes, young first voters and former AKP voters. So far, the political parties have been criticised for ineffective communication and failing to reach other voters and opponents as the editor of Politik Yol Ali Haydar Firat stated:

The parties and politicians talk on social media to convince and consolidate their own supporters. They cannot develop potential ways to reach opposite views. They cannot create authentic content targeting other voters. However, the Saadet Party (The Felicity Party ) is very successful even though it is smaller in comparison to other parties, their social media team follows a successful strategy with their videos. However, mass political parties suffer from cliques. Each vice-chairman, opinion leader or influential politician establishes his own social media team, which prevents any organisational communication strategy and organisational politics. The politicians, who would like to help their political rise as a potential candidate, likely try to get extensive public support and attention on social media. The politicians and opinion leaders should avoid involvement in this kind of polarising actions as much as possible, as increasing polarisation in politics work to the opposition’s disadvantage and affective polarization feeds into the rise of populism. They consider themselves as majority and the other as minority. I advise them to post on topics which address many people. In the vision meeting of Kilicdaroglu, he never used the AKP and attracted strong attention from several parts of society, as the people do not want their past voting decisions to be insulted or denigrated, they want to hear what the other parties offer. The best strategy is this, not to simply declare people as traitors, terrorists. There is information pollution and content overload in our communication ecology. So, it is important to differentiate from other populist communication styles by putting forward concrete pledges like buying one more bread rather than abstract statements which do not work for our society.

The Need for Pluralism

The delusion of representation may also lead to a misunderstanding of the current agenda of society. On the other hand, some politicians unwittingly use an exclusive language to please their supporters, which may reinforce ingroup feelings and repel non-supporter and potential voters, who are already tired of the divisive and harsh language in the populist context. Social media expert, advertiser and columnist Ümit Alan underscores the impact and pressure of partisan and critical supporters on politicians and mainstream politics, as algorithms favour a “ flow of anger”, as angry content boosts engagement and gets much more interaction than neutral and positive posts:

Algorithms try to show the content created by potential supporters, even as they follow specific political parties, politicians or municipalities. The politicians have the opportunity to consolidate supporters that are already convinced or would vote for them. However, you need to get out of this universe and social media. The politicians in Turkey and in the world cannot comprehend this. The politicians should have a silent agreement with their own voters and audience, for being able to access other groups and ideologies. Right-wing parties seem to behave according to this kind of agreement more than others. A conservative politician of a right-wing party does not get negative reactions from his followers. However, when Imamoglu shared some posts appealing for center-right or conservatives, he got more severe reactions from left-wing followers. Then, the politicians hesitate to post mainstream posts or alternative posts that target the other camps, so as not to annoy their own followers. This strategy does not suffice to win the elections.

Confusion Over New Election Rules & The Fate of Internet on Election Day

The other considerable challenge for the opposition parties is informing the electorate about the new election rules. The "Law on the Amendment of the Law on Elections of the Representatives and of Other Laws" numbered 7393 passed in 2021, reduced the threshold from 10 percent to 7 percent to enter the parliament, while it also allows political parties to form electoral alliances, which will induce profound changes for political parties and voting practices of the citizens. The reduction of the threshold will not only allow smaller political parties to enter parliament, but also that alternative political parties will be able to overcome threshold problem and hold seats in the parliament by taking part in alliances with major and other parties. However, some of our respondents raised concerns if media and political parties adequately inform the citizens about new rules and possibilities about the new election system, which may have a wide ranging effect on the voting decisions.

Another important concern among the respondents is the possibility of shutting down the Internet or disrupting networks during the elections. The latest internet throttling practices in the aftermath of the Taksim bombing and on the third day of the earthquake prompted much criticism not only from the opposition but also from the public. The government blocked the main social media platforms Twitter, Facebook, Tiktok and Instagram, in February 8 2023 for about 10 hours, while people under the rubbles were calling for help and sharing posts and locations and NGOs were organising aid and rescue efforts with citizens over social media. This led to rising concerns over the access to the Internet for the security of the elections, as our media studies scholar explained based on the previous experiences:

As 90 percent to 95 percent of traditional media consists of pro-government or close to the government outlets, social media is of great importance for the opposition. I do not mean to say that it has no importance for the government, that the election can be won just by the traditional media. However, social media is of great importance particularly for informing the electorate and public correctly and help them to give their voting decisions based on accurate information. Also, we witnessed that the Anadolu agency, the state-run network, which is responsible for sharing the voting results, stopped publishing the results in the 2019 elections. The data flow was provided by the the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), critical and alternative media outlets which got the news from the pro-opposition ANKA News Agency and opposition politicians on social media. Therefore, a significant asymmetry was experienced about informing the public, which is the basic prerequisite for democratic elections. It is clear that social media will play a critical and vital role in circulating voting results during and after the elections. Recently, the opposition leader tried to create “the man of the people” image by broadcasting from his kitchen, however there is not one mainstream media outlet which would broadcast him from the studio. I think that the main issues that people agree on is more than the issues that people separated. However, in this moment, I do not believe that neither the government nor the opposition can reverse the situation with a very comprehensive campaign on social media.

On 20 April, the vice president of the main opposition CHP, shared the same concerns about the shutdown of the Internet and the throttling of bandwidth in his interview on the online news website Gercek Gundem. He stated that the bandwidth throttling will threaten election security and damage the freedom of information and the freedom of speech and the shutdown of the internet in a country on election day should be perceived as a different kind of coup attempt. He added that they are developing alternative solutions for the scenario that Internet is interrupted or access to social media platforms are blocked.

In the last 15 days, Kemal Kilicdaroglu and CHP intensified their pre-election campaign on social media. However, Turkish state-run public broadcaster TRT refused to air the advertisement of the opposition leader with the slogan “I promise spring will come again.” CHP filed a complaint against TRT over biased coverage (CHP files criminal complaint against public broadcaster, 2023). On the other hand, Kemal Kilicdaroglu seems to maintain a pluralistic and tolerant rhetoric in his videos and speeches so far. His latest video in which he explains his religious identity as Alevi was posted on several platforms like Instagram and Twitter, the video attracted more than 112.6 million views and 33.3 million views on Twitter. It was the most viewed video on Twitter globally since 2022, passing the most popular celebrities in the world. “I am Alevi,” the presidential candidate says in the video, addressing first-time voters. “I am a sincere Muslim who was raised with the faith of Prophet Muhammed and Ali. Our identities are what makes us who we are." (Poyrazlar, 2023)

In the next post, we will continue to look at the social media campaigns and strategies of the opposition parties and candidates in detail.